Employers Too Often Pay for Stress: Firm but Not Unfair, Court Finds

Financial Post: Wednesday, July 23, 2008. All Rights Reserved.

Lawyers retained by damaged or troubled employees too often issue lawsuits without analyzing whether any legal wrong was committed by the employer. Increasingly, we are seeing claims issued by the more left wing members of my bar based on disability, gender and other forms of purported discrimination, which should be more vigorously defended than they are now. A sympathetic employee and real damages do not equate to a successful lawsuit and employers should be rigorous in analyzing their legal liability.

That is true of the case involving Maria Amaral, who worked for the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency for more than 20 years, became so depressed she threatened to kill her co-workers and then herself, and was confined to a psychiatric facility. This formerly mild-mannered accounts supervisor blamed her employer. Her problems started when her manager left and she unsuccessfully bid for the position. Her employer claimed she lacked the necessary relationship with the president.

The employer chose to promote a brusque, no-nonsense woman who refused to coddle employees. Adding insult to grievance, it then insisted Amaral train her. Deeply resentful, Amaral refused to perform the tasks she felt were part of that manager’s job. Irritated, the employer reprimanded her. Amaral felt she had been unfairly treated and the employer’s demands unreasonable and she couldn’t let go. In short order, she descended into depression. The employer placed her on probation and removed some of her responsibilities. Within days, she had a total collapse. Strapped to a hospital bed, she told a crisis team if she could get a gun she would shoot everyone at work and then herself. She gained weight, developed diabetes and attempted suicide.

Amaral and her family sued the employer and her managers for causing her depression. The court agreed the employer had triggered the illness when it passed her over for promotion. But, it said the employer didn’t do anything wrong. It was firm but not unfair. Amaral never advised her employer she was depressed. The employer could not be expected to know she was depressed.

Sympathy, according to the Court, is not an employer’s legal obligation. Its reprimands and probation were proportionate and reasonable responses to Amaral’s declining performance and punctuality.

Employers should remember:

  • Employers are not automatically responsible for stress and depression that an employee suffers even as a direct result of work or the employer’s conduct. There has to be a legal breach before there is a remedy;
  • An employer cannot be expected to accommodate a condition it is not made aware of;
  • In those rare situations where an employer is trying to make life unbearable for an employee and causes a mental breakdown, the potential damages can be far greater than any action for wrongful dismissal.